Cassini – A Fond Farewell

I remember vividly my first astronomy class in university.  Winter 2004, only months before the Cassini spacecraft was set to arrive at Saturn after a seven year journey.  On several occasions in that class we talked about what we might see when Cassini reached it’s destination.  The first dedicated mission to the jewel of the solar system, originally conceived right after the voyager flyby in 1982, would give us a chance to study more than just a planet, but an entire system of interaction between a planet and it’s moons.  Beyond that, it included the Huygens probe, to land at...

The Intense Invisible Aurora

Jupiter has aurora.  It’s not surprising since it has a very powerful magnetic field.  It’s only natural that the two largest structures in the solar system, the Sun’s solar wind influence (called the heliosphere)  and Jupiter’s magnetosphere, should be constantly battling. But don’t expect to see Jupiter’s aurora through a backyard telescope.  The result of this battle is far more energetic, producing an aurora invisible to the human eye, one made of X-rays. The Sun constantly blasts charged particles off into space in all directions, assaulting the planets, moons, and other solar system bodies.  It is this blast of solar wind that gives...

Very Long Exposure Photography

Since diving into astrophotography last year, I’ve discovered that I love the concept of time-lapse, and not just with respect to astronomy.  It’s amazing to see the changes that can occur over long periods of time, and time-lapse photography is a way to record the changes and see how they unfold.  In astronomy the best time-lapses give you a sense of the Earth’s motion through space, show satellites zipping overhead, and show aurora dance along with weather patterns. Large amounts of time with slow incremental changes produce incredible results when it comes to time lapses. Science communication is about how to...

Flight of the Ionic Phoenix

I’ve spent the last couple of days as a zombie due to the time change, but now that I feel like myself, I’ve got some catch-up posts to do.  The first one has to do with today’s APOD. Can you spot the phoenix shape? It doesn’t mean anything special, it’s just the way our brains see the patterns of light from this gorgeous aurora in Iceland.  Ionization of atmospheric gases from charged solar particles doesn’t sound as glamorous as ‘phoenix aurora,’ but I still appreciate the scientific beauty of it.  Human beings are excellent at pattern recognition, and so we...

New Gamma Source

Gamma rays are the highest energy photons on the electromagnetic spectrum.  Their wavelength is similar to the size of an atom, and when two of them collide they tend to produce a matter-antimatter particle pair.  They represent energy high enough to synthesize the fundamental particles of matter, and are produced in the highest energy environments in the cosmos.  The interchange of matter and energy works both ways, so one of the ways gamma rays are generated is through annihilation of a matter-antimatter particle pair.  Looking back to the beginning of the universe it gives us the earliest ‘chicken or egg’...

1000 Things You Didn’t Know About the Universe #5: Seeing Aurora Means the Sun Isn’t Killing You

Welcome to a new series of posts that will characterize 1000 amazing facts about the Universe.  There is so much out there that we have yet to learn, and every day, astronomers across the globe are using their research to reveal the deepest secrets of the cosmos.  This series will look at the strangest, coolest, most exciting facts that we have discovered in hundreds of years of modern science. Fact #5:When you see an aurora in the sky, it is a sign that you are being protected by the Earth and not being blasted with solar radiation. The Sun; A...

Why Iceland and Norway are on my Bucket List

As someone who is a hobbyist astrophotographer, I’ve got a laundry list of astronomical events to photograph. Nebulas, Galaxies, star clusters, eclipses, and of course, aurorae! Where do the best aurorae happen? Near the north and south poles, so naturally it makes sense to visit those places where there is a bit of civilization, far north or south, with clear skies. The two places that are on my top list, outside of northern regions in my home country of Canada, are Iceland and Norway. Here are some reasons why: The aurora borealis are legendary in these parts of the world....

What is between a Star and a Planet? Brown Dwarfs

Categorizing objects in the universe can be difficult.  The fiasco with Pluto over the last decade is more than proof of that.  We generally look to location and then to size as the two main methods for classifying the stuff that permeates the cosmos.  Galaxies contain stars, which host orbiting planets, which host orbiting moons; While asteroids fly in between planets and icy comets are wander through the outskirts of star systems. But what about the in-between objects? Often we find strange things in strange places. There are moons in our solar system that are larger than planets.  What would...

Mars has Auroras!

Auroras on Earth are caused by the ionization of atoms high in the atmosphere near the north and south magnetic poles.  The solar wind flies toward the Earth and this harmful radiation is blocked and funnelled by our magnetic field, creating harmless, beautiful glows that remind us how close we came to total destruction, but were saved by our planet.  Do other planets have auroras? Certainly! Jupiter and Saturn do, and even moons like Ganymede can have auroral activity.  It really depends on the magnetic field.  So how does a planet like Mars, with no magnetic field, have auroras? This...